Monday, September 1, 2014

Movie Review - Pi

Pi (1998) - A surrealistic look at a mathematical genius in pursuit of the irrational number known as "pi" (π).  Max (Sean Gullette) believes that he can unlock the very nature of the universe if he can just figure out the work abandoned by his mentor Sol (Mark Margolis).  Sol gave up the quest because he believed it was killing him and that it will do the same to Max.  Meanwhile Max meets Lenny (Ben Shenkman) a Hasidic Jew who uses math to try and understand the Torah. The research brings Max to a mysterious 216 digit number that may hold the key to reality, or open the way for the Jewish messiah or simply drive him insane.

I'll admit the description above may not make you want to run right out and get a copy of "Pi".  At the same time this movie was such a balm for me after "The Purge" (review).  Everything that movie isn't, intellectually challenging, visually interesting, and well acted, this one is.

It is not your everyday movie fare.  The movie leans heavily on a surrealist vision of the story.  In case you're not 100% clear on surrealism (Art Appreciation was a long time ago for some of us), it is part of the avante garde movement in the arts that focused on the creative potential of the subconscious through a sometime irrational/illogical combination of images.  In other words, this is NOT a check your brains at the door movie.

Shot on a shoestring ($60,000) and entirely in black and white, it feels a little like classic German surrealist movies.  The mood is paranoid and claustrophobic.  At the same time it is just engrossing.  Darron Aronofsky made his directorial and screenwriting debut with this film and earned himself an award at the Sundance Film Festival as well.

This is not a light bit of fluff for an afternoon's viewing.  It is an intense and involving film with a story that can grab your imagination by the throat.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, August 25, 2014

Movie Review - Away We Go

Away We Go (2009) - Burt (John Kasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are very much in love.  When they discover they are pregnant it suddenly dawns on them that they're not quite sure what to do next.  A cross country trip takes them to the homes of family and friends who slowly hone the couples understanding of what it means to be "family".

There is a time in life, between the end of school and when life gets serious, where you can still live your life as a "not quite grown up".  It's a time period that can be incredibly free and more than a little terrifying.  Burt and Verona have managed to extend that part of their lives into their early 30s.  But a baby suddenly means that certain questions can no longer be avoided.  They are naive, self centered and just a little vacuous.  Their response is to plan a rather optimistic tour of the nation that they expect will result in Burt getting a better paying job and them finding the "perfect" place to live.

The supporting cast in this one is really spectacular.  Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels play Burt's completely self absorbed parents.  Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan play a former co-worker of Verona's and her husband.  Janney's Lily is a loud, vulgar disaster of a mother, while Harrigan's Lowell is dour and pessimistic.  Verona's sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) is one of the few normal people they meet on the trip.   Burt's childhood friend LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) shows them another kind of family that pushes them both a little over the edge.  It's one mess after another until they finally land with Burt's brother.  His brother is faced with raising his daughter alone after his wife walks out on them.

There's a really neat little touch to this movie.  Burt and Verona are all those things listed above at the start of the movie.  They were so annoying that I was pretty sure I was going to hate the movie.  But as the action sweeps them along, they learn and grow.  At the beginning you're sure they are going to be the parents that ends up with children who have to take care of them.  By the end there's the real hope they might be able to pull it off.  Neither Rudolph or Krasinski have movie star good looks.  They are attractive, normal people and that plays to the advantage of the story.  These feel like real people struggling through a very big challenge.  Being a parent is the hardest job on the planet and there's no training available for it.  All you can do is hope and love and hang onto your loved ones.

Director Sam Mendes does a very nice job of letting the story tell itself.  It isn't a perfect movie, the story lurches a few times along the way.  In the end the combination of winning leads, good direction and a story with some real heart makes it well worth the time to watch it.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Review - Skyjack - The Hunt for D.B. Cooper

Skyjack-The Hunt for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray (2012) - There are few crimes in American history that have grabbed the imagination the way the hijacking of an airplane by a man known only as "Dan Cooper".  Through a mistake "Dan Cooper" became "D.B. Cooper" and that is how history remembers him.  Cooper hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305 out of Portland Oregon in November of 1971.  He released the passengers, extorted $200,000 (worth just over a million dollars today), had the plane take back off and parachuted out of the plane into history.  No one knows who "Cooper" really was or what happened to him.  Some of the money was recovered well away from the believed parachute area.  It remains the only unsolved air hijacking in American aviation history.

"Skyjack" is the work of  "New York Magazine" editor Geoffrey Gray.  Gray's work has appeared in the "New York Times Magazine" and "Sports Illustrated". He gets drawn into the story when an investigator comes to him with a tip.  That tip will lead him into the bizarre and twisted world of Cooper theorists and the subculture where they reside.  He will get a look at FBI files that have been tucked away for decades.

With that background you would expect an exciting and interesting book.  You'd be wrong.  Gray can't seem to decide if the book is about Cooper, about the theorist sub-culture or himself.  Potential identities for the hijacker get thrown into the story seemingly at random, disappear and then turn back up.  It's clear that Gray got caught up in the paranoia and mental fog that surrounds so many of the people in the story.  He is quickly not the clear minded journalist trying to shine a light into the dark corners of a story.  Instead he dives head first into the murky waters.

The end result is book that leaves you feeling unsatisfied.  Nothing particularly revealing is laid out here.  The author simply becomes another befuddled character in a story that is over flowing with the same.  If you don't know much about Cooper there are a few interesting notes scattered through the story.  The rest is just a vague and wandering story without a sufficient resolution.  It could have been so much more.

Rating - ** Not Impressed

Monday, August 18, 2014

Movie Review - The Purge

The Purge (2013) - In a new middle-of-the Apocalypse America the "New Founding Fathers" have instituted a new way to deal with the negative emotions of modern day life.  One day a year, for 12 hours, all laws are suspended and all emergency services are shut down.  For the 12 hours of the "purge" everyone is on their own.  In fact it is a cynical method of lowering the population and allowing the upper socio-economic classes to attack the poor.  The movie tracks one well to do family who ends up harboring a poor black man being pursued by a band of upper class psychopaths.

Let's get this done upfront.  This movie is odious.  The script is idiotic, the characters (as they inevitably do in slasher films) insist on doing THE STUPIDEST POSSIBLE THINGS AT ALL TIMES, plus there's the usual batch of horror cliche situations and characters.  The concepts of the movie are vile as well.  That a government might do such a thing is a common enough trope in fiction.  It might actually have been an interesting movie if we had been given a struggle between the ideologies expressed here.  But we don't.  The movie glories in the atrocities, the violence and the gore.  The family at the center of the story survives more through luck than anything else. Even the tacked on "moral" at the ending is achieved with one final spurt of blood.

What may be even more horrifying than the movie itself is that people flocked to see it.  "The Purge" cost around three million dollars ($3,000,000) to make.  It's domestic gross was sixty four million dollars ($64,000,000) and it added another twenty four million ($24,000,000) in the rest of the world.  There is no surprise in the fact that a sequel came out this year.  It's done quite well as well.

To the folks who saw it when it first came out I can give a pass.  To the folks who knew what it was going to be and those who went and saw it more than once (you know some folks did), I say this - what the hell is the matter with you?

Do the world a favor, don't put any more money in the pockets of the people who made this atrocity.

Rating - 1 *   I SO wanted to give this a "No Star" rating but that would be over the top.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review - The Garden of the Stone

The Garden of the Stone - Victoria Strauss (2010) - Years ago the world had been divided between those with the power of the Mind, the Gifted, and those who worked in the physical world, the Ungifted, whose world was known as that of the Hand.  The Gifted kept control of the rest through the supernatural powers of the Stone.  A prophecy said that a man would come and use the Stone to reunite the Mind and the Hand.  When Bron finally came he did the unexpected.  He stole the Stone and disappeared.  (All of this action is laid out in the previous book to this one, "Arm of the Stone").

This book picks up years later when Bron's daughter Cariad, a powerful empath and assassin must infiltrate the Fortress that once held the Stone.  The prophecy that predicted Bron's arrival also predicts his return.  The problem facing the prophecy is that a sworn enemy of astounding power is waiting for Bron.  Waiting to destroy him and take total control of the world.  Cariad must discover the enemy's secret and destroy him to protect a father she never knew.

Like any good fantasy novel, trying to explain the story in just a few words is very difficult.  Victoria Strauss has created a world of great complexity and placed an equally intricate story in the middle of that world.  Her characters are beautifully crafted.  The story lines are woven with skill.  The end result is a story that carries you along with great energy.  At the end I wished that I could immediately start reading not only the other book in the series and then start looking at Strauss's other work.  It's the kind of book where you're disappointed when you hit the end.

Rating - **** Recommended

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams


I'm not even sure where to begin with this.  I was a huge Robin Williams fan.  I loved the high tempo comedy routines, I was stunned by the depth that he brought to his dramatic roles (comedians can be astounding talents at dramatic roles) and I was very happy to discover that he was a fellow Episcopalian.  Lots of entertainers that I admire have died over the years of my life.  For whatever reason, this one feels different.

It wasn't always that way.

I remember vividly when "Mork and Mindy" debuted in September of 1978.  There's was a lot of talk about this show.  I was not impressed.  It sounded like the dumbest idea I'd ever heard and I was (big surprise) quite vocal about what a dumb idea it was.  After watching it for a few episodes I fell for Williams's quirky style and gentle hearted character.  It also didn't hurt that Pam Dawber was easy on the eyes.  In the end I was probably right about the concept because it ran it's course very quickly.  But when the show was good, it could be amazing.

That is the simplest summation of Robin Williams's career.  Some things just didn't have the depth to go the distance.  But when he was good?  Oh my.

I'm not sure I can even choose my favorite Robin Williams role.  What a pleasant surprise he was in "The World According to Garp".  I knew he could be something special after watching him in "Moscow on the Hudson".  "Good Morning Viet Nam" isn't a particularly good movie but Williams was amazing.  I have to imagine that it is a favorite especially among radio DJs.  The first half of the movie is mostly about the radio and it's stunningly funny.  "Dead Poet's Society", "Cadillac Man", "Awakenings", "The Fisher King", "Hook", "Aladdin", "Mrs. Doubtfire", "The Birdcage" (THE FREAKING BIRDCAGE!!!!), "Good Will Hunting", "What Dreams May Come", "Patch Adams".  Even in the small role he had as Teddy Roosevelt in the "Night in the Museum" movies he was fun to watch.

Not all of those are great movies.  There were plenty of movies on his filmography which are pretty forgettable.  Curiously his comedy movies tend to fall flat for me.  The general consensus is that his high energy comic style just didn't translate well.  "Aladdin" was the right vehicle for that style.

Robin Williams always felt like someone who would be a blast to just hang with casually.  It just felt like he would be perfectly comfortable in the backyard with a few friends.  At the end of the night there would be a big hug.  And a fall down funny parting line.  Followed by more hysterical commentary the whole way to the car.  And then a few more tossed out the window as he drove away.

That's the way it felt to me at least.

Which is probably why the death of this entertainer that I never met feels so personal.

I will miss you Robin.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Movie Review - The Descendants

The Descendants (2011) - Matt King (George Clooney) lived a pretty quiet life most days.  An attorney who specializes in real estate he faces a big family decision about a huge tract of prime land in Hawaii that could make them all rich.  At the same time his oldest daughter (Shailene Woodley) has become something of a behavior problem.  Then his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie),  is seriously injured in a boating accident.  Suddenly Matt has to face issues that he has ignored.  What he discovers about his life will profoundly upsetting.  As he tries to draw his family back together he will discover even more about himself.

This review is a bit of cheat.  I did a review of this movie in December of  2012 ("In Flight Movies").  On a trip to Germany I got to see a bunch of movies.  This was the only one I liked.  I've been telling Mrs. Phlipside that she should see it ever since.  As with "Crossing Delancey" I was a little concerned that it might not hold up to my memory.

No worries.

This was an intentional change of pace role for Clooney.  He normally plays very together, confident characters.  Matt King is a quiet man who doesn't think much beyond the day to day details of his life.  So when the wheels start to come off his life, he is completely unprepared to handle it all.  Clooney brings a great touch to the transition as Matt begins to "grasp the nettle firmly" (as the old saying goes).  He is just lost at the beginning and reacts at a very basic level.  When confronted with the final insult to his world view of the life he lives, King just takes off running.  There's nothing left in him mentally.  There is only physical reaction.  Clooney's face and awkward gate is perfect at that moment.  It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

While this is a story about Matt King, Clooney gets some wonderful support from the younger members of the cast.  Woodley is marvelous at the older daughter, Alexandra, who will never get the chance to repair her relationship with her mother.  Amara Miller does a nice job with the smaller role of little sister Scottie.  But real kudos go to Nick Krause as Alex's friend from school, Sid.  When you first meet Sid he looks like the comic relief.  Instead the script (based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings) allows Sid to be both funny, charming and profound.  In many ways it is Sid that provides the family with the place to put their feet as they try to recover.  Special nods to Beau Bridges for his work as Cousin Hugh, Robert Forster as Elizabeth's father, Scott Thorson and to Patricia Hastie as Elizabeth.  She spends the vast majority of the movie unmoving in a hospital bed.  We only see her "alive" in a few memory clips.

My family asked me what kind of movie this was.  Comedy?  Drama?  Yes.  It is a warm and funny movie that deals with very serious issues in a very serious manner.

It was every bit as good the second time around.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Book Review - A World On Fire

A World On Fire by Amanda Foreman (2012) - We all learned about the American Civil War.  Lincoln, the Confederacy, Gettysburg, slavery and Appomattox.  When we got a little older we may have learned a little more, that it wasn't quite so cut and dried and that the war was an enormous bloodbath that forever changed who we are as a nation.  With this book, your education on the Civil War will take the next leap forward. (a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, and educated as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College and with master’s and doctorate degrees in history from Oxford University) tells the stunning story of the importance of England and English politics in the final outcome of the war.  If England had chosen to recognize the Confederacy as a nation we would live in a very different world today.  The interplay between the two nations, the United States and the United Kingdom, was intense enough that an additional war between them almost happened twice during the years of the Civil War.
 Foreman tells the story through the lives of a wide variety of people ranging from the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston to the British minister in the United States (we didn't warrant a full ambassador at that point in history) Lord Lyons to a variety of common Englishman and itinerant soldiers who would volunteer on both sides of the conflict.  (In fact, Henry Morton Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, served on BOTH sides of the war and eventually in the U.S. Navy as well!)

In the long run there was no chance that the Confederacy could win the win outright.  Lacking the manpower and the industrial base of the North, the Confederacy believed that superior culture and fighting spirit could carry the day.  It was a vain belief.  They had only two hopes.  To drag the war on until the political will of the North was destroyed, or for some major power (England or France most likely) to recognize the Confederacy as a nation.  The first very nearly came true.  In the end Lincoln's generals (most of whom were awful) won just enough, and at just the right time, to keep the war limping along.  The South still believed that "King Cotton" would bring England in on their side.

England was divided on the subject (the French chose to play a delaying game, waiting for England to move first) and the fight for English popular support sounds very much at home in the 21st Century.  On the one hand there is a strong resonance in the English spirit toward those who fight for liberty.  When the South could keep the discourse focused there they did very well with English politics.  At the same time England had relatively recently turned its back on slavery in all forms.  They were rabidly opposed to any group that continued the slave culture.  Confederate agents implied that if left to its own devices the "peculiar institution" would slowly fade away in an independent South.  This was a political lie of monstrous proportion.  The economy of the Confederacy could not function without slaves and the ruling classes saw no reason to try.  In the end the English politicians would realize this and finally close the door on the Confederacy.

Quite simply, this is the best book I've read this year.  I have always been interested in the Civil War and having moved to the heart of the conflict recently (just outside Richmond, VA) my interest has fired up even more.  I was vaguely familiar with the role that England had played in the Civil War.  My understanding of the political side of the war is now far deeper and more detailed than ever before.  The terrible toll of the war has been brought back to me in great detail as well.  Foreman is masterful in her storytelling.  Each of the characters (and there are a boatload of them!) come alive for the reader.  The vain, the long suffering, the bombastic, the idealistic, the devious and the outright deranged move smoothly across through the tale of this terrible conflict.  Characters you think you know well, like Lincoln, get finer detailing and depth.  Others you have never heard of before will capture your attention as they struggle through their own terrifying histories.  Men's careers and lives will grow, blossom or be destroyed as they attempt to make a passage through the politics of two nations with common heritages and completely separate views of the world.

For the Civil War buff this is a must read.  I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in American or English history.  And if you enjoy a story well told, you can't go far wrong with this one.

Rating - ***** Highly Recommended 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Movie Review - Crossing Delancey

Crossing Delancey (1988) Izzy(Amy Irving) is a bright and talented young woman working at a low paying job that she loves coordinating events at a small independent bookstore in New York City.  She thinks her life is ideal but her grandmother begs to differ.  With a little help from the marriage broker a date is set up between Izzy and Sam (Peter Reigert).  Sam runs the family pickle business and Izzy doesn't see him as the man of her dreams.  Instead she's focused on a self centered local author and the life she thinks she "ought" to be living.  Modern life meets traditional Jewish culture in a charming romantic comedy.

I have loved this movie from the first instant I saw it.  When I finished watching "Marty" (review last week) I immediately thought of the parallels between the two.  Strong ethnic story lines, family pressure to marry, counter pressures from other sources and ultimately the conflict between who we are and who we think we ought to be.  The two movies also share a deep well of humanity in their story telling, a warm heart at the center of it all.

What "Marty" lacks is a character like Izzy's Bubbie.  Played to perfection by career Yiddish theater actress Reizl Boyzik, she steals any scene she's in.  Which is perfect, because Bubbie is the center of any scene she's in too.  Between the script and Reigert's work Sam is also letter perfect.  He never slides into caricature or let's Sam become one dimensional.  It would be easy to let that character just slide by but the movie doesn't let it happen.  Irving also brings a perfectly believable Izzy to the screen.  One who is going through the motions to please Bubbie at first but slowly sees the real man in Sam rather than the slick writer.  It's interesting that Irving gets star billing but is only (in my opinion) the third best actor in the cast.

I won't tell you this is a great movie.  The script has several completely pointless characters and scenes in it.  Adapted from a stage play I wonder if Susan Sandler who wrote both the play and the screenplay loved them so much she couldn't bring herself to cut them.  There's an unexamined "friend with benefits" character who lives upstairs from Izzy who is expendable (except you'd lose one of Reigert's best lines), a rather extended scene of a bris ceremony that adds little and a sauna scene that offers nothing other than a glimpse of Irving's breasts.  The movie would have been even better if she had.  One character gets a big buildup (Marilyn, played by Suzzy Roche of the Roches) then just disappears.  The good news is that what's good in the script (Izzy, Sam and Bubbie) is good enough that you won't care too much about what's not so good.

I talk about this movie a lot when I want to talk about "little movies", movies with smaller budgets that are closely focused on story and character.  It's been a few years since I last saw "Crossing Delancey" and I was afraid that I'd built it up too much in memory.

Instead I was rewarded with the same joy I remembered.  One of my personal favorites.

Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

From My Shelves - Lewis Grizzard

("From My Shelves" is an occasional series that looks at personal favorites from my personal collections)

The various works of author, columnist and humorist Lewis Grizzard - It's just over 20 years since Lewis Grizzard died at age 47.  I'm not sure how I "discovered" Grizzard.  My best bet is that I was looking for something else and stumbled on the delightful titles of his books:

  • Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You: A Good Beer Joint Is Hard to Find and Other Facts of Life 

    • Won't You Come Home, Billy Bob Bailey?: An Assortment of Home-Cooked Journalism for People Who Wonder Why Clean Underwear Doesn't Grow on Trees
    • Don't Sit Under The Grits Tree With Anyone Else But Me 
    • They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat 
    • If Love Were Oil, I'd Be About A Quart Low 
    • Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself 
    • Shoot Low Boys - They're Riding Shetland Ponies 
    • My Daddy Was A Pistol and I'm a Son of a Gun 
    • When My Love Returns From The Ladies Room, Will I Be Too Old To Care? 
    • Don't Bend Over In the Garden, Granny - You Know Them Taters Got Eyes 
    That's not all of them but it gives you a taste.  Grizzard began as a sports writer and editor, rising quickly up the ladder at the Atlanta Journal, where he was installed as sports editor at age 23.  The Chicago Sun-Times then lured him to their staff.  The problem was that first and foremost, Lewis was a southern boy.  Never happy in the Windy City, he eventually returned to Atlanta.

    The good news for us is that Grizzard kept up a steady stream of columns and stories, sharing all the events of his life with his particular brand of self mocking humor.  These are the work of an author who understands his trade.

    The funny stories can make you laugh until you cry.  The sad ones will make you cry till your heart breaks.  If I had to pick a single book as my all time favorite, it would be his paean to his father, "My Daddy Was A Pistol, And I'm A Son of a Gun".  I'm not sure there is a greater or more heartfelt tribute by a son to his father written anywhere, any time, by anyone.

    You can read his books when you've only got a few minutes to spare because many of them are made up of columns.  Or you can decide to dedicate an afternoon or day to this great American humorist and let him teach you things about life you never thought about before you turned a page.

    Grizzard stands squarely in the tradition of Mark Twain.  That's pretty high flown company.  Lewis Grizzard is that kind of writer.  Quintessentially American, with a sharp eye, a way with words and a willingness to make himself the butt of the joke.

    Go find his books today.